Big Win for Forest Service and QLG

10/7/2009

Members of the Quincy Library Group are cautiously celebrating what will likely turn out to be a seminal victory in the ongoing litigation over how to manage the national forests of the Sierra Nevada.

On Thursday, Oct. 1, District Court Judge Morrison England issued a “tentative ruling” at the federal courthouse in Sacramento, rejecting arguments made by Sierra Forest Legacy and other environmental groups, who claimed that the rules adopted in 2004 for management of these forests in the Sierra Nevada would cause irreparable harm to the environment. They wanted the previous rules of 2001 reinstated.

After listening to attorneys argue for both sides, Judge England seemed to favor arguments made by QLG attorney Michael Jackson, who argued eloquently that the best science indicated that going back to the previous management regime (known as the 2001 Framework decision) was a very bad idea. In fact, it would “destroy our ability to implement and test the congressionally authorized QLG project.”

In addition, Jackson argued that if the 2001 rules were put back in place, it would result in the “destruction of the ‘real' old growth.” “That is, the largest trees (hundreds of years old, and 60 to 70 inches in diameter and greater) would die out first as the Sierra Nevada climate becomes warmer and drier.”

Attorneys for the Forest Service and Mr. Jackson also pointed out effectively that the 2001 Framework rules had been exhaustively reviewed and were determined not to do an adequate job of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires such as the infamous Moonlight and Wheeler fires that destroyed huge chunks of Plumas County forest most recently.

Jackson then suggested that the judge should order the Forest Service to consider the alternative of implementing the QLG approach on national forests “across the entire Sierra Nevada.” Judge England apparently agreed. In his tentative ruling, he indicated that he would not reject the current management direction (2004 Framework rules), though the Forest Service does have to fix a technical flaw found in that environmental impact statement. He also indicated that he was leaning towards ordering the US Forest Service to evaluate the QLG management approach across the entire Sierra Nevada. The judge also said that he was not persuaded by the Sierra Forest Legacy claim that harvesting some trees in the 20- to 30-inch diameter range represented irreparable harm to the environment.

Judge England indicated that he would issue a final written order within a short time, perhaps as little as two weeks.

The hearing was attended by numerous Forest Service officials, environmental group members, and also a strong contingent from the QLG. Mike Yost, longtime QLG member said, "This is the right decision at the right time and it will have a positive effect on the future of these forests.” John Sheehan of Plumas Corporation, another longtime QLG member, pointed out that “we can soon get moving on the backlog of projects awaiting this decision. It is crucial to make progress on this important work.” Frank Stewart, county QLG forester, was enthusiastic: “Finally, the Forest Service has the green light to implement the hazardous fuel reduction and forest restoration projects at the required pace and scale that is needed to address the catastrophic fire problem that is threatening our communities, watersheds and wildlife in the eight-county area of the QLG Pilot Project and, hopefully, the rest of the Sierra.”

Mike Wood, QLG member and labor union representative for sawmill workers in Plumas and Sierra counties, noted that this tentative decision is “good news not only for the hundreds of sawmill workers and their families who have lost their livelihood due to this lengthy court battle, but also for workers in the timber industry and those with jobs the industry supports in our communities such as local deputies, teachers and retail workers.”

George Terhune added that “this significantly changes the dynamics and momentum of our efforts to move ahead by putting some much-needed wind in the sails.”

While the judge’s decision won’t be final until he issues a written order, that order is very likely to be even more valuable than his tentative ruling. In past decisions Judge England has been very thorough in his analysis of the facts and his explanation of why he ruled as he did. Those analyses and explanations in this case are expected to be very helpful to those, such as QLG, who want to look forward as they defend and improve our forests and watersheds, not be bogged down in old arguments that only cripple our attempts to devise up-to-date solutions for current problems.

No doubt we’ll have a lot more to say when Judge England issues his written decision. Meanwhile, Thursday was a very good day.


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